Mobilising consumers through digital activism: why customer loyalty matters when using digital activism strategies to motivate businesses to collaborate

Adaptation Information Management and Technology

Shahla Ghobadi is Professor of Information Management at Leeds University Business School. Her research interests include the social aspects of developing digital applications and digital activism for social change. Scott Sonenshein is Professor of Management and Organisational studies at Jesse H. Jones School of Business, Rice University. His research interests focus on using field methodologies to examine questions around work and organisations.

Office workers moving symbols around a desk

Social media has changed the world. In the 2000s, the advent of new social networking technologies transformed the internet, bringing individuals closer together and giving social movement organisations (SMOs) a novel opportunity.

SMOs have increasingly used digital activism - social media and networking tools - to bring attention to social problems and mobilise consumers globally to pressure businesses to change their practices. Global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated the shift towards online organising and highlighted the importance of digital activism.

Previous research has focused on how SMOs have used viral social media posts to prompt businesses to take immediate action, relying on narrow concessions or compliance to effect change.

We conducted a longitudinal study to understand how SMOs can design, implement, and promote digital campaigns that enable globally distributed participation to establish lasting relationships with businesses fuelled by valuable social change ambitions and mutual benefits. The study asks: How do SMOs use digital activism to motivate target businesses to collaborate on advancing social change?

Mobilising consumers through digital activism

We adopted an interpretivist case study approach (where the focus is on understanding people’s unique views and experiences in situations through qualitative research methods) to develop novel insights.  We focussed on three campaigns from a single leading SMO – Greenpeace – that relied primarily on social media platforms to mobilise consumers and influence global businesses to change their environmental practices and collaborate to alter industry standards. 

Green My Apple (2006-2007)
In 2006, Greenpeace launched the Green My Apple campaign to encourage Apple to make environmentally-friendly changes in its products’ design, production, and recycling.

With Apple’s massive fan base and high customer loyalty, Greenpeace used a tolerant content positioning to frame its digital activism content. This positioning emphasises activists’ appreciation and encouragement of the target business’s positive contribution, thereby attributing responsibility to a critical social problem. 

This approach received a mostly silent response from Apple, but Greenpeace strengthened their calls for change using a promotive strategy (i.e. an approach that actively encourages and motivates a target audience to take actions in line with a specific goal or cause). Greenpeace encouraged Apple’s loyal consumers worldwide to voluntarily produce activism and draw the company’s attention, using symbols emphasising Apple’s symbolic language of leadership and caring about consumers. 

This approach was effective, as Apple fans frequently and creatively remixed and exchanged existing resources to create content, such as the Hug your Apple image (expressing their desire for a green Mac) to continuously challenge Apple. 

Using these strategies, Greenpeace created a growing ecosystem of Apple fans supporting the campaign, resulting in Apple changing its manufacturing practice.

Longer-term, the positive foundation of appreciation led to direct engagement between Apple and Greenpeace, culminating in a collaborative relationship that explored steps for addressing Apple’s environmental practices and industry processes.

The campaign demonstrates that sustained and increased digital activism can provide valuable opportunities for target businesses to demonstrate their commitment to social issues and establish themselves as industry leaders.

KitKat (2010-2011) 
In contrast, Greenpeace targeted Nestlé using an antagonistic content positioning (i.e. strong language and confronting images) in the KitKat campaign.

An antagonistic positioning aims to mobilise consumers to adopt an adversarial approach, threatening the company’s reputation, which they may be more willing to do as their association with the company is relatively weak. This can lead to quicker and more direct collaboration agreements, but it can also generate resistance from the company, which will require the SMO to devote resources to sustaining consumer mobilisation.

The KitKat campaign raised awareness that Nestlé was sourcing palm oil from suppliers that were destroying Indonesian rainforests, a habitat of orangutans. Greenpeace created digital content using symbols and language familiar to Nestlé’s consumers to motivate them to challenge the company. 

A confrontational YouTube video labelled “Have a break? Give the orangutan a break” received over 1.5 million hits and became Greenpeace’s most successful online campaign. When Nestlé claimed copyright infringement, Greenpeace quickly moved the YouTube video to another platform which intensified activism by making the video viewable in countries where YouTube is restricted. 

This highlights the need for SMOs to have the flexibility to respond to companies’ efforts to dampen digital activism, and to have a preventative as well as promotive strategy to sustain digital activism.

As the campaign successfully mobilised consumers through viral activism, Nestlé responded by battling with Greenpeace. However, when the company realised the damage to its public image, Nestlé changed its purchasing practices and committed to actively collaborate with Greenpeace.

Unfriend Coal (2011-2012)
In 2010, Greenpeace launched the Unfriend Coal campaign, urging Facebook to shift to renewable energy sources. At this time, the social media platform was still relatively young but had a large and enthusiastic user base who would be reluctant to switch to an alternative provider, so consumer loyalty was greater than for Nestlé’s chocolate bar. 

Greenpeace’s digital activism used an ambivalent content positioning by combining antagonistic and tolerant elements, i.e. acknowledging the positive contributions of Facebook while criticizing its relationship with coal. This approach appreciates that consumers may be cautious and can create a playful dynamic between SMOs, mobilised consumers, and their targets, resulting in prolonged digital activism that can inspire field-level changes. 

Greenpeace encouraged Facebook users to build on campaign videos and photos, enriching the social network of supporters, and attracting celebrities’ attention. Facebook’s response was mostly silent, although they occasionally engaged and explained their stance online. 

Prolonged digital activism poses risks such as consumer fatigue and declining motivation to engage further. As the campaign progressed, Greenpeace adopted a protective strategy (a strategy used to safeguard digital assets and online presence from various forms of harm such as online harassment or cyberattacks) to safeguard the social network and empower consumers, by gradually introducing complementary social networking platforms and features. 

Leading up to Earth Day in 2011, Greenpeace challenged Facebook users to record 50,000 comments on a single post withing 24 hours, leading to a new world record being set with over 80,000 comments in one day. These efforts helped sustain and strengthen the 22-month campaign and mobilised a growing community of supporters. 

Facebook finally conceded to use renewable energy and improve transparency in environmental reporting. Greenpeace subsequently reported on the progress made through collaboration towards field-level changes, including phasing out coal-fired electricity in Facebook’s data centres.

Research insights 

The findings concur with prior research on strategic framing that identifies the need for SMOs to adjust their strategies to hold businesses accountable for promoting social change. 

However, our findings go steps further by suggesting that SMOs can pursue more ambitious goals in their digital advocacy and mobilisation by seeking collaborative relationships. They can signal strategic benefits to businesses and potentially achieve a deeper form of social change that can have a ripple effect on other businesses.

Our findings further indicate that Greenpeace adapted their strategies to reflect levels of consumer loyalty to the targeted brand and their consequent willingness to take specific types of action. This means that SMOs demand a more diverse approach than just focussing on viral tactics and adversarial framing to establish a more promising foundation for pursuing field-level changes.

The strategic choices include a combination of digital content positioning (tolerant, antagonistic, ambivalent) and social networking strategies (promotive, preventative, protective) that may reflect assumptions about consumers.

Our study suggests: 

  • antagonistic positioning in digital activism content can help in some cases to achieve quick collaboration agreements, but a preventive social networking strategy as a risk management approach may be required to help address potential resistance by the target business;
  • ambivalent positioning in digital activism content is powerful for creating long-term collaborative initiatives, but SMOs may need to employ a protective strategy when using ambivalent positioning;
  • promotive social networking strategy is potent to be leveraged along all content strategies.

To conclude, our paper contributes to extant research by elaborating how digital activism can be pursued through a diverse set of strategic choices to establish lasting relationships with businesses, promote a shared sense of purpose, and advance social change aspirations at the field level.

Read the article

“Creating Collaboration: How Social Movement Organizations Shape Digital Activism to Promote Broader Social Change.” Journal of the Association for Information Systems. Shahla Ghobadi, University of Leeds, and Scott Sonenshein, Rice University. ISSN 1536-9323.

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